Meanwhile, she was soon to give me the second of the three kisses I was to receive from her, as a reward for bringing her the news of the first signs of Fra Celeste’s returning health. After several days and nights spent in almost continuous sleep, he awoke one morning in a cheerful mood, looked at me affably with his calm eyes and asked, looking around as if seeking something, why Aglaia wasn’t there. I said that it was still a little early, but immediately rushed out to fetch her. It was incredible to see how the ominous foreboding in her sleepy countenance slowly transformed into timid delight. She had me sit down on a chair right next to her, had me repeat everything I said several times and, while I spoke, followed the movement of my lips with her eyes, before suddenly, with large tears running down her cheeks, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me on the mouth.
Back then, it seemed to us, and I think to Fra Celeste himself, as if his life had been returned to him for ever. Why, then, why did God allow him to come back if it were only for a short time, which was to end in such a terrible downfall? I do not wish to presume to interpret the intentions of God’s unfathomable wisdom; and who can tell whether God permits us to make our own decisions regarding life and death, even if we are unaware of this when we are awake? Be that as it may, regardless of the resignation and longing for death that Fra Celeste had previously displayed, it was with great energy that he now flung himself back into the arms of life. Indeed, never before had I seen him bubbling with so much delight and strength and desire for love, just as if he had paid a visit to the fountain of life and slept for a while under curative balsam trees and rejuvenating dew.
By contrast, Aglaia remained wrapped in the cloak of her melancholy, as if unable, or unwilling, to free herself from the tight-fitting cloth for fear of the bright light. Her laugh, her smiling face, her tender words, everything shone muted from beneath this veil – perhaps her heart was now unable to regain her earlier natural trust in life, or perhaps the terrible terminal illness to which she was to fall victim had already cast its shadow over her. As nobody could have suspected this latter idea, however, we all trusted that she would soon accustom herself to the return of her happiness and that everything would go back to the way it was. Fra Celeste made plans for long journeys he wished to undertake, for the desire to preach had reawoken inside him along with his health, and it also happened that, since his recovery, he had discovered a joy in nature, which he had previously more or less ignored. This sudden, belated inclination had something of the wonder of a blind man who comes to know the world as an adult, or after a period of darkness is able to see the world once more, and the childish thoroughness with which he marvelled now at the straight growth of the cypress trees, now at the oranges’ waxy leaves or the shifting colours of the clouds and waves, befitted him so well that we often had tears in our eyes when we listened to him.
Our concerns were not enough to restrain his desire to preach, and so in the large, neighbouring harbour town, he gave that mightiest and most famous of his speeches, which at the time nobody, least of all the man himself, could have suspected was to be his last. The theme of his sermon was death and immortality; of course, it has been printed so often and read so much that I won’t concern myself with providing the details here. But who could describe the triumphant, soaring expression and the melodic smile with which he accompanied his words! Once more I was led to consider whether his soul, while we all believed his body to be sick, had wandered through the mysterious spiritual realm that we call Heaven, which he was able to describe so wonderfully in images all could understand. On the other hand, I asked myself how it were possible that this blessed man, who had seen Paradise and the glory of God, could be so entranced by the ephemeral spring on our miserable planet?
No matter: thousands among the audience will have had the same wish, namely, to hear these words again on their death beds, or to have Fra Celeste himself appear at their bed as the Angel of Death and lead them by the hand across the threshold of Eternity. In any case, over the following days an immeasurable crowd made a pilgrimage to him: surviving dependants who wished for information about their departed loved ones; those tired of life and plagued by thoughts of suicide; doubters and lovers; he was also asked to ease the passing of those about to die with the comfort of his presence. Yet only a few of all these received the solace of his Heavenly genius, for in the meantime the great transformation had already begun.
Already on the day of the sermon, Aglaia had been forced to stay at home owing to a slight ailment, and it soon turned out that this supposed indisposition was actually a serious illness, the very same one Fra Celeste had just recovered from, as if the evil germs had moved on from him to her. Who can say how long this evil had already been inside her? At any rate, it progressed at an incredible speed, so that after just a few weeks the doctor in charge indicated that there was no hope of the invalid’s recovery. While you would have expected Fra Celeste to shower the beloved dying woman with twice as much affection, to prepare her, to give her courage or at least make these long days shorter through his engaged presence, in fact the opposite occurred.
Initially he visited her rarely, then later not at all, he avoided any mention of her name; in short, he behaved as if she had entirely vanished from his memory. I was able to conclude, however, that this was by no means the case from the way his good mood had deserted him completely. I know not how to describe this state of despairing numbness or withdrawal in which he existed; he exuded an almost visible feeling of solitude, all around him forming an icy layer of air that kept any living creature at a distance. All the while, poor Aglaia lay unmoving out on her terrace overlooking the sea, unaware of how ill she really was, but carrying a far more bitter suffering in her heart, for she was convinced that Dolfin no longer loved her. His illness, she said, was over, and the passion he had shown her after his recovery had merely been a forced flame and had consequently quickly died out.
Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.